Korea needs championsThe new Moon Jae-in administration must be prepared to confront U.S. President Donald Trump’s aggressive, leverage-based “America First” policy. President Trump has only been in office for a little over 100 days, but his administration has already engaged in a series of unprecedented actions that have drawn criticism from within the United States and around the world.
Under this new approach, the Trump administration has sought to maximize leverage with each of its partners on discrete issues such as trade without seeming to understand the full impact of its actions on international stability or the broader effects on complex geopolitical issues. However, as seen with the Trump administration’s recent summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, shrewd negotiations and a willingness to engage with the Trump administration can produce win-win arrangements if leverage points are identified and the proper strategy is employed.
One of the top priorities of the new Korean president will be to preserve and advance Korea’s interests in its longstanding, and mutually beneficial, trading relationship with the United States. Claiming a trade policy based on “America First,” the Trump administration has issued a series of controversial trade-related executive orders questioning the legitimacy of existing free trade agreements, has self-initiated two cases on global imports of steel and aluminum under an obscure Cold War-era national security law, has invoked for the first time a highly controversial provision in an antidumping duty case on imports of steel pipe from Korea to allege that the Korean market is distorted by too much government interference, and has threatened to terminate or renegotiate existing trade agreements, including Korus and Nafta.
These actions require Korea to develop a persuasive intellectual case on the merits and engage the United States in a strategic and comprehensive manner in order to leverage Korean interests in future trade negotiations.
First, Korea must make every effort to build a sound legal case for its positions. While the Trump administration’s actions are motivated by politics, they are still underpinned by laws and legal agreements. Korea should, therefore, seek to present rational and well-reasoned arguments based on the rule of law at every opportunity. Such arguments alone will not be enough to win over the administration, but they will serve as a necessary foundation for Korea’s approach to the administration.
For example, while the Trump administration claims that its policies are based on “America First,” Korea could easily rebut that these policies only benefit a very small subset of America, such as the steel industry. However, in prioritizing the steel industry, these policies are in fact harming a much greater portion of America, including downstream industries that further process steel, such as the automobile industry, as well as individual consumers that purchase cars and other downstream products. Indeed, Korea has a better chance of prevailing when it has sound arguments on the merits.
Second, Korea must link these trade issues to the overall Korea-U.S. strategic alliance. The Trump administration has a tendency to address issues in isolation without considering the bigger picture. In this way, the U.S. can be enemies with Korea on trade one day, and friends with Korea on defense the next day.
However, if Korea accepts this premise and limits its response to an issue based on how the U.S. has defined that issue, then Korea will be in a weaker position. Instead, Korea should take a holistic approach and emphasize that every issue, be it trade or defense, affects the overall Korea-U.S. relationship.
Therefore, if the U.S. attacks Korea on trade, it necessarily affects the bilateral relationship. In the past, Korea skillfully tied semiconductor trade issues and beef import issues to the overall Korea-U.S. relationship and should seek to do the same with issues arising under the Trump administration.
Third, Korea needs to develop allies and champions within the U.S. business community, the U.S. Congress, and the Trump administration itself. These individuals can serve as surrogates for Korea in conveying important positions, receiving valuable insights, and defusing tense situations. It is well known that Trump regularly seeks out the opinions of those in his inner circle and is often influenced by their positions. Korea should strive to develop allies and champions not only among those within Trump’s inner circle but also with individuals that may have sway with those in the inner circle.
In this regard, it is important to note that Trump has not yet selected his ambassador to Korea. Past U.S. presidents have selected people with little influence over the White House to serve as their ambassadors to Korea, while naming a former Vice President, a former speaker of the House of Representatives, and former cabinet secretaries to serve as their ambassadors to Japan.
As part of Korea’s efforts to strengthen its ties to the Trump administration, Korea should consider conveying informally to the administration the importance of having a U.S. ambassador to Korea that has Trump’s trust and his ear. This can be an additional channel of communication at the highest level that Korea can deploy in times of urgency.
While Trump’s “America First” trade policy has negatively impacted Korea during Trump’s first 100 days in office, Korea should engage the United States in a measured, strategic, and comprehensive manner that emphasizes the rule of law and the overall bilateral relationship, while making full use of allies and champions in the U.S.
Through such an approach, Korea may be able to convince the Trump Administration that “America First” does not have to be a zero-sum game that comes at the expense of Korea.
*The author is a senior partner at the law firm of Arnold & Porter in Washington, D.C.